What is ‘Direct Trade’ Coffee and Have We Outgrown ‘Fairtrade’?

Jamie McIlhatton
4 min readApr 22, 2020

For years now we’ve been so focused on whether the cup of coffee we’re drinking is ‘Fairtrade’ or not. Originally, the Fairtrade certification was set up to ensure a more fair wage for farmers, depending on them achieving certain environmental and social criteria. However, a common misconception is the promise of good quality coffee and just how ambitious the certification is.

The intentions are to assure Farmers, who pay for certification, are paid a minimum price; which can never fall below market/commodity level. The UK is the world’s largest market for Fairtrade products and there are more than 5000 products carrying the certification on our shelves. On the surface, it seems positive for developing countries, bringing more stability; but It’s fair to say there have been persistent critics of the well-known certification for a while. Arguments to say that they’ve exaggerated claims and priced out the poorest sector of producers.

Let’s work backwards with the traditional coffee supply chain and start with the coffee shop or restaurant. They’ll purchase beans from a roaster, who buy in green beans from either brokers and green buyers. So that brings us nicely to the question of what ‘Direct Trade’ actually is and why it’s becoming more commonly spoken about in the coffee community.

Coffee roasters have started to travel to some of these countries in order to meet the producers themselves and form relationships. They become more connected to the coffee they’re buying and have more control over how they can help in a mutually beneficial way. This direct relationship means that the producer will be paid directly without any complex supply-chain structures. Sometimes the roaster may even financially support them through purchasing processing equipment. However, with the term ‘Direct-Trade’ being a relatively new one; there is yet to be a formal definition or framework of guidelines/policies set in place. Potential for lack of protection?

Jamie McIlhatton

Sustainability Consultant and Owner of @smallmatterofsustainability // A Restaurant owner just trying to take my own advice...